In part I, we learned that it’s basically impossible to design a training regimen in which everything perfectly recovers and nothing detrains from one training session to the next, because different systems recover at different rates.
We also learned that its way more effective to train according to the earliest indicators of recovery—when your muscles and peripheral nerves are able to perform again–and then give your slower tissues their own dedicated downtime at a later date.
In this article, we’re going to discuss exactly what to do when you’ve reached the limit of your current adaptive reserves and you know it’s time for a break.
Strategic Deconditioning: When Less Is More, and Nothing Is Best
When you stop training after the build up of cumulative fatigue, your body finally gets a chance to repair the stress in your slower systems, and the remodeling continues for weeks. With a long enough break, your body gets the message that your environment is now passive, and it starts to creep back towards its genetic equilibrium. This causes the repeated bout effect to roll off, and lowers the stress threshold for new adaptations to a much more sane level.
Don’t think of this as going backward. Strategic Deconditioning takes advantage of the final phase of adaptation: retraining. Even though you’ve taken a step backwards, it won’t take you nearly as long to get back to your peak as it did the first time. And this time, it won’t be a peak. You’ll blow right past it, on to the next peak.
So don’t kick yourself while you’re down. Don’t work so hard you don’t make time to get paid! Let nature give you the rewards you’ve earned from your training.
“How Will I Know That It’s time to Decondition?”
Depending on your fitness level and the intensity and frequency of your training regimen, you may need to decondition anywhere from once every six weeks to once every three months.
Pay attention to the signs. If you’ve been doing your best and not getting better for a while, you’re probably there. If you’re noticing a growing sense of weakness, or increased amounts of aches and pains, you’re probably there. Some other common signs that you have drained your current adaptive reserves are:
- A feeling of heaviness in your body, along with a subtle but growing sense of weakness
- Being easily overwhelmed
- Having trouble concentrating
- Being easy irritated, frustrated, and angered
- Feeling overly tempted by snacks, and not feeling a normal sense of nourishment or satisfaction from food
- Sleeping poorly, and an inability to feel renewed even after a full night’s sleep
- Join pain (lower back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain are the most common)
“How Long Will I Need To Get the Benefits from Strategic Deconditioning?”
Once you’ve spent your reserves, any time off will help. If you’ve been going crazy for weeks, even 3 days of quality rest can give you a significant boost. For example, Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones took some severely overtrained body builders and convinced them to take 3 days off. These were the types of guys doing two-a-day workouts 6 days a week. They had depleted their reserves and were still attacking their muscles. So Jones had them spend 3 days on the beach eating liberally. And what happened? Their muscle mass, their strength, and their power all increased significantly, from doing nothing but letting their reserves refill. They hadn’t gone backwards at all.
7-9 days will be often be a safe minimum for deconditioning from the repeated bout effect. If each of those days includes full nights of quality sleep, you’re central nervous system will usually be ready for another round by then.
But significant tissue trauma to bone or connective tissue can take 6 weeks or more, with remodeling continuing for months. And if you have really blown out your reserves with chronically excessive stressors, you may have something called adrenal fatigue, and this can take months to recover from.
How to Strategically Decondition with the Greatest Effectiveness
If you’ve determined that it’s time to decondition, you want to really dedicate your time off to renewal in all its forms. This means a few basic things:
Sleep – Get as much sleep as you can. Quality matters too. Don’t eat chips, drink beer, and fall asleep watching Breaking Bad. When it’s time to sleep, make it as dark as possible and as quiet as possible. (If you need a sleep mask and ear plugs to pull this off, get them.)
Eat – Eat liberally, but very nutritiously, to give your body the building blocks it needs to rebuild. Quality protein sources and healthy fats are the most important.
Renew – Avoid any form of stress or over-stimulation than you are able to avoid, and this includes what you listen to, what you watch, and where you go for fun. The modern world is rife with over stimulation. Everything is vying for your attention. To really experience renewal, you’ve got to take control of this, grab the knob, and turn it all down. This is a time for quiet, rest, and reflection. If you have experience meditating, do it, often. If you don’t, it’s a great time to start. If you practice martial arts, run whatever forms and drills you have that are meant to be run slowly — nothing explosive or strenuous. Take walks in the woods. Gently stretch, or do some of the gentler Yoga poses if you know them.
Tonify – if you’re feeling the systemic effects of overtraining–the heaviness, weakness, the moods–a fantastic way to help strengthen all systems is to regularly enjoy a potent spring wine tonic during your renewal period. In traditional Chinese medicine, tonics are systemic healers that are known for their ability to renew spent energy.
Put Some Jow on That! If you can feel the soreness and stress in particular parts of your body, then the regular and liberal use of the right kind of jow can significantly accelerate your recovery and decrease your pain.
Onward and Upward
As a final piece of good news, I want to point out that your adaptive reserves are able to expand with training. That’s the whole point. As you recover from long term fatigue and continue to raise your fitness level, you also increase what you can handle cumulatively. Each system becomes better at handling and processing its cumulative stresses than it was before.
Respecting these cycles of growth and renewal is the quickest and safest pathway to mastery.
- Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. 1995. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.
- Brook GA, Fahey TD, White TP. Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and It’s Application, 2nd ED. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996.
- Verkhoshansky Y, Siff MC. Supertraining. Verkhoshansky, 2009.